Progressive Policy Versus Conservative Norms: A Paradox of LGBTQ+ Rights in Cuba

Written by
Melissa Wilk
May 20, 2022

By Melissa Wilk


LGBTQ+ rights are gaining attention in national and international political discourse and policymaking. Despite recent progress, complex challenges still stand in the way of establishing human rights for LGBTQ+ communities around the world. One such challenge is the uneven progress towards LGBTQ+ rights caused by conflicts between progressive policy and conservative norms, which poses a threat to the progress that has been made and may lead to worsening conditions for LGBTQ+ people. Within the context of Latin America and Cuba specifically, this paper explores whether progressive policy alone is sufficient for enabling change, and the relationship between policy and norms: does policy shift with norms? Or do norms shift with policy? With a unique history and culture, and some of the strongest pro-LGBTQ+ policies in the region, Cuba provides an opportunity to examine these questions and provides critical insights for literature that is otherwise underdeveloped.


LGBTQ+ populations have been discriminated against and marginalized within society and policy for many reasons. However, in the last several years, the persecution of LGBTQ+ individuals has gained more attention and importance in both national and international political discourse and policymaking (Steans 2013). Rising visibility of the LGBTQ+ community within activist movements and global Pride parades, along with the community's inclusion in mainstream film and media in recent years, has largely contributed to this growing attention. On the other hand, this trend has also caused more dissent. Within academic and policy realms in particular, regions such as Africa and Asia have been discussed extensively due to the strong anti-LGBTQ+ policies including the death penalty or prison for life that exist in many countries. However, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), which is often perceived as doing “well enough” in terms of LGBTQ+ rights (Berezowsky 2018), is a region that is frequently overlooked in academia, policy, and advocacy work, which is one reason why it must be highlighted. LAC nations often fail to gain focus in international conferences and are excluded in reports on sexual orientation and gender identity (Berezowsky 2018). Despite their lack of attention in international fora, many countries in LAC have made notable progress towards achieving LGBTQ+ rights. Some of the most progressive LGBTQ+ policies in the world exist in LAC, such as Argentina’s legalization of same-sex marriage, which makes it the 10th country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. The growing progress towards these rights, however, is matched with growing evidence of tensions between progressive policy and homophobic cultural norms in LAC nations. One extreme example is the fact that Brazil, a country with some of the strongest affirmative policies and support for international LGBTQ+ rights, also has the highest murder rates of LGBTQ+ individuals (Corrales 2017). Societal norms and acceptance of the community lags behind these policies. For instance, religious groups and evangelicals are pushing agendas that post a threat to policy progress. Burstein (2003) argues that public opinion influences public policy, and that this relationship is strengthened when a policy has seized public attention. However, this relationship is threatened by interest groups, political parties, and economic elites (Burstein 2003, 29). Burstein’s insights generates the following critical questions: Is progressive policy enough? Does policy shift with social norms, or do social norms shift with policy? These questions are of great importance because uneven progress, or the lagging of social acceptance, may generate more damages by causing progress to be lost or reversed. Uneven progress between policy and social acceptance can destabilize and undermine existing achievements , leading to worsening conditions for LGBTQ+ people, a community still largely marginalized. 

Cuba, a country in the LAC region with a unique history and some of the strongest pro-LGBTQ+ policies in LAC and the world, provides an opportunity to examine these questions. More specifically, queer women’s experiences in Cuba can be used as a case study to explore one facet of how progressive policy and societal norms interact in the region. Queer women continue to be marginalized to a greater extent because many LGBTQ+ movements have focused on cisgender homosexual men. Furthermore, there is an abundance of literature on some LGBTQ+ groups but a lack of literature discussing queer women’s issues, a symptom of patriarchal patterns in which men remain the center of focus.

Taking these issues into consideration, this paper will explore the example of queer women in Cuba to help illuminate the broader paradox of uneven and uncertain progress in LGBTQ+ rights in the region. First, this paper will provide a brief background on global LGBTQ+ rights, followed by an exploration of the overall status of LGBTQ+ rights in LAC. Next,  the paper will focus mainly on Cuba, specifically looking at the legal and social aspects of queer women’s family rights. The unevenness in both aspects negatively impact the social and mental well-being of LGBTQ+ individuals in health, employment, income, housing, food security, access to services in Cuba and LAC nations. Finally, drawing from the case study of Cuba, there will be an examination of insights and policy recommendations that help address larger ongoing issues in the uneven progress of LGBTQ+ rights in LAC nations.

LGBTQ+ Rights: Background

Despite the presence of LGBTQ+ individuals throughout history, the community has had complicated struggles within society, both in terms of social acceptance and policies dating back to thousands of years and across cultures and Indigenous groups. Around the world, there remains not just a lack of policies to protect the human rights of LGBTQ+ individuals but also many policies that actively discriminate or marginalize these groups. They have been  plagued by many harmful stereotypes and false rhetoric especially in the wake of the HIV/AIDs crisis in the 1980s. These harmful stereotypes and false rhetoric are mainly a symptom of the gender binary, the societal construction of gender into two distinct categories (male and female), and heterosexism, the belief that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation. LGBTQ+ identities challenge these assumptions and are outside of the “norm” within society, which is one reason why they continue to be marginalized. Progress on LGBTQ+ rights has been slow, with some parts of the world advancing more quickly than others. For instance, the Netherlands was the first country to legalize same sex marriage in 2001, with Spain (2005) and Canada (2005) not too far behind, and Brazil (2013), France (2013), the United States (2015) behind by around a decade. Nonetheless, LGBTQ+ communities and allies have continued to fight for human rights.

The Stonewall riots of the late 1960s in the United States started one of the most publicized protests in pursuit of human rights for the LGBTQ+ community and marked the start of many uprisings which today are commemorated through “Pride” celebrations. In recent years, more countries have begun to decriminalize same-sex relationships, and some are moving towards legalizing same-sex marriage and securing adoption rights for queer partners. On an international scale, efforts to achieve recognition of LGBTQ+ rights as human rights at the UN date back to 1994, yet homosexual acts are still criminalized in 76 of the 192 UN member states. This indicates that despite the long history of LGBTQ+ activism, there remains “entrenched prejudice that LGBT people have confronted – and continue to confront – in countries across the world” (Steans 2013, 78). Considering these engrained issues, defining the protection against discrimination of LGBTQ+ communities as an “international standard” is a major challenge in the realm of human rights because of the wide variation in opinions of these identities across cultures and religions (Nogueria 2017, 545). The differences in cultures, religions, and politics around the world produce barriers in establishing human rights for LGBTQ+ communities because the topics of sexual orientation and gender identities are highly politicized in public dialog. This means that diverse sexual and gender identities have been associated with certain political ideologies and given a political tone (for example, the idea that accepting the LGBTQ+ community is a “leftist” approach), rather than being accepted or understood, which produces challenging identity politics. In sum, LGBTQ+ rights are complex, and there are many reasons why progress has been slow in some areas and faster in others. The LAC region presents a strong example of how this unevenness has persisted. 

LGBTQ+ Rights: Latin America 

This section will provide further context to the structure of LAC nations by exploring the positive and negative developments in the region. Many LAC countries have significantly advanced LGBTQ+ rights through policies and legal measures, in some countries like Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, and some cities like Mexico City and Santiago, the status of LGBTQ+ rights is more advanced than some of the most democratic nations of the world (Corrales 2017). In a strong current since 1999, homosexuality has been decriminalized and is universal in all Spanish-speaking countries and Brazil (Corrales 2020). Some of the most advanced legislation and policies on LGBTQ+ rights such as “discrimination statutes, legalized same-sex marriage, expansion of health services for LGBT people, and pro-LGBT court rulings” have been established in LAC nations in the last decade (Corrales 2017, 52). For example, Brazil has entered intense negotiations with international organizations in an attempt to gain approval for a few resolutions on LGBTQ+ rights (Nogueira 2017, 545). In 2003, Brazil tabled a draft resolution on Human Rights and Sexual Orientation that was met with strong opposition from other states, which led to the UN postponing the vote (Nogueira 2017, 550). In 2004, states in opposition united against the resolution arguing that it was a social value and cultural norm issue that should be regulated on the domestic level (Nogueira 2017, 550). Considering this extreme division, Brazil did not present the resolution (Nogueira 2017, 550). Despite the failure in approving the resolution, the incident sparked mobilization and had the effect of “intensifying, amplifying, and diversifying LGBT human rights advocacy within the UN” (Nogueira 2017, 550). Brazil’s leadership illustrates “the important role of Global South states in advancing new international norms and principles” (Nogueira 2017, 546). 

Another pioneer of LGBTQ+ rights in LAC nations is Argentina. On July 14, 2010, it became the first country in the region and the 10th in the world to legalize same-sex marriage (Pousadela 2013). By the end of the year, same-sex marriages had existed in all provinces and districts in Argentina, and there was “increased visibility of the LGBT community in places that were once resistant to diversity” (Pousadela 2013, 706). In 2012, the Argentinian Senate unanimously approved a Gender Identity Law that was described as “one of the most advanced in the world” for being “based on the principles of de-judicialization, de-pathologization, decriminalisation, and de-stigmatization of trans identities'' (Pousadela 2013, 708). In both cases, these ground-breaking legislative steps had their origins within civil society and were “pushed forward by a social movement in conjunction with a series of allies within the political system” (Pousadela 2013, 707).  The work of advocates within the political system and the simultaneous support of organizations made these significant steps in progress possible, even though there remained dissent. 

However, despite these legal advances, major human rights issues remain in the LAC region such as violence against LGBTQ+ individual and pushback from religious communities and conservative leaders. The prevalence of violence against LGBTQ+ people in LAC nations is startling given the political progress that has been made. It also highlights that policies have advanced faster than societal acceptance. For instance, Mexico had over 1,000 homophobic murders in only two decades, and the LAC region has four out of five countries with the highest murder rates of transgender and gender-diverse people worldwide, with Brazil maintaining status as one of the world’s LGBTQ+ murder capitals (Berezowsky 2018; Corrales 2017). Not only is there significant violence, but the LAC region “continues to be the scene of startling incidents of public homophobia” such as anti-gay demonstrations (Corrales 2017, 57). For instance, in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Peru, homophobic and transphobic groups have organized massive marches since 2015 (Corrales 2020, 11). The improvements in the legal environment have generated new backlash and challenges (Corrales 2020, 17). Machismo culture, heteronormativity, and gender roles continue to persist as deeply-embedded social constructions within LAC cultures. This is aided by conservative groups that are challenging the expansion of LGBTQ+ rights in the region. For example, religious groups and churches, both in LAC and in other parts of North America, are funding projects to fight against LGBTQ+ progress. Churches have acquired an impressive capacity to influence politics (Corrales 2020). Evangelicals are now “providing forms, organizations, arguments, resources, and alliances to challenge new or existing progress” (Corrales 2020, 2). This demonstrates that with growth in progressive policies, there is also competing growth in opposition. While state-led homophobia does exist in some cases, the backlash is mostly led by non-state actors. Corrales (2020) notes that “as a social movement, these churches exhibit political strengths and advantages that previous backlashes in the fight for LGBT rights in Latin America did not enjoy” (Corrales 2020, 2). There is a wide gap, or a paradox, between the political will to advance LGBTQ+ rights and the extent to which it aligns with social norms and public approval (Berezowsky 2018). 

These examples show that the LAC region does not have a unitary voice on LGBTQ+ issues and that inspiring advances should not “overshadow the actual size of marginalization and persecution” (Berezowsky 2018). Here, there is an exposure of the tensions between progressive policy and cultural norms: while legal status is advanced, societal tolerance lags. Much of the literature surrounding LGBTQ+ rights in LAC nations does not mention or recognize the steps that Cuba, for example, has taken in the last decade to advance rights, particularly due to its status as a socialist nation and its lack of prominence in the international stage. Cuba is notable because it presents a complex and unique example with some of the strongest pro-LGBTQ+ policies in LAC, cultural norms that accept non-nuclear families, anti-discrimination laws, a history of support for advocacy organizations, strong healthcare support of LGBTQ+ individuals, and neutral legislation. Thus, Cuba is an example of the tensions between policy and societal norms occuring on a national level, which provides broader insights in response to the research questions at hand.

Cubans in Madrid Pride Parade
Cuban flag in Madrid Pride Parade. Image Source: tedeytan. Licensed under  CC BY-SA 2.0.

Cuba Case Study: LGBTQ+ Rights & Queer Families 

This section will first provide a brief overview of the context of Cuba from pre-revolution to the present day, highlighting key progressive policy advancements. Next, it will focus specifically on queer women’s experiences related to family life by examining the policy element. That is, the role of neutral legislation and discussing the social aspects including the conflict between the persistent stigmatization of LGBTQ+ individuals and the normalization of non-nuclear families.  

Cuba’s Context 

Cuba has a storied and complicated history of political, social, and economic turmoil but also of triumph and national pride. The context of revolutionary Cuba is important because it highlights an interesting shift from (1) pre-revolution social norms and policy, which criminalized homosexuality with limited social acceptance, (2) revolutionary social norms and policy, which were some of the most oppressive in the country’s history, and finally, (3) post-revolution social norms and policy, which began to pave the way for pro-LGBTQ+ policy and greater social acceptance. The context of revolutionary Cuba highlights that left-wing parties have an “uneven record” with LGBTQ+ rights in LAC nations, although Cuba’s revolution ultimately led to more progress despite the bumps along the way (Friedman 2009, 415). Prior to the Cuban Revolution of 1953, Cuba was viewed as an erotic island of opportunity and beauty. During this time, there were popular LGBT friendly bars in Cuban cities, even though Cuba had strict laws that criminalized homosexuality (Majied 2015). The system targeted gay men, and identifying as openly gay was rare, with those who had same-sex partners often presenting themselves as heterosexual in public (Majied 2015). Yet, the thriving prostitution industry included gay men (Majied 2015). During revolution, the profit incentive of prostitution was erased, and homophobia became more institutionalized (Majied 2015). Between 1959 and 1980, gay men endured experiences ranging from limited job opportunities to detention in street sweeps to incarceration in labor camps (Majied 2015). These years presented significant hardship for LGBTQ+ Cubans as Cuba’s new ally, the Soviet Union, had hostile policies. Homosexuality was considered a product of the “decadent capitalist society of pre-revolution Cuba” (Majied 2015, 30). Fidel Castro made openly derogatory comments about homosexuality and many believed that it was an “agent of imperialism” (Majied 2015, 30).

As a sexual and gender minority, queer women benefit – to a limited extent – from Cuba’s existing social and legal structures. This reality provides an opportunity to explore the nuanced challenges caused by uneven progress in LGBTQ+ rights.

In the 1970s, after the revolution which ended in 1959, perspectives began shifting and a commission was created to investigate and understand homosexual identities, which led to the decriminalization of same-sex relationships in 1979 (Majied 2015). The decriminalization of homosexuality in Cuba was far ahead of not only many other LAC nations, but also in the global landscape. In 1981, the Ministry of Culture argued that homophobic bigotry was an unacceptable attitude inherited by the revolution and that all sanctions against LGBTQ+ should be opposed (Majied 2015). Later, in 1993, Castro also began criticizing homophobia and made several speeches to the public about how homosexuality should be respected (Majied 2015). That same year, the government lifted its ban on allowing LGBTQ+ persons from serving openly in the military (Majied 2015). These advancements demonstrate how  The Cuban government’s treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals has changed drastically over time, to a greater extent than many LAC nations, due to its revolutionary roots. 

In the last decade, Cuba has continued taking strides towards progressing equality for gender and sexual minorities. Since 2008, Cuba has voted at the UN in favor of LGBTQ+ rights, and Fidel Castro made an effort to apologize for the injustices committed against these communities in 2010 (Browne 2018, 73). More recently, the LGBTQ+ movement in Cuba has advocated for marriage equality within their constitutional rights by pushing the government to adopt gender-neutral wording in the reformation of the constitution (Hutchison 2020, 193). Though this has now been put on the backburner, LGBTQ+ movements in Cuba are still fighting for marriage equality (Lotto Periso 2018). Another aspect to note is that Cuba is the only country in the Caribbean with anti-discrimination laws related to sexual orientation and gender identity (Malta et al. 2019, 6). Since 2008, Cuba’s government has provided vital medical care including gender-affirming surgeries and hormonal treatment in the National Health System (Malta et al. 2019, 6); furthermore, transgender individuals can change their legal name and gender with ease (Malta et al. 2019, 6). As can be seen with these changes, Cuba has made many advancements for LGBTQ+ individuals in policy and social acceptance. However, there remain challenges due to the impact of uneven progress. The following section will introduce queer women’s family rights in Cuban society. As a sexual and gender minority, queer women benefit–to a limited extent–from Cuba’s existing social and legal structures. This reality provides an opportunity to explore the nuanced challenges caused by uneven progress in LGBTQ+ rights.

Queer Women’s Family Rights

Cuba provides an interesting look into the dynamic between progressive legislation and lagging societal norms. The imbalance of the two highlights uneven progress, which has been defined earlier as strong policies but lagging social acceptance in the context of LGTBQ+ rights. The example of queer women’s family rights in Cuba showcases how uneven progress impacts individuals in the queer community by threatening  advancements that have been made. Though many policies in Cuba advance LGBTQ+ rights, the lack of current legal recognition of marital unions between members of the same-sex makes family life more complicated for queer women, especially those who wish to parent children together. While this lack of legal recognition of same-sex marriage impacts all LGBTQ+ individuals who wish to marry, queer women are more heavily affected given the prominence of machismo culture, a dynamic of aggressive masculinity which projects the idea that women are subservient to men and should be in heterosexual marriages, and social norms regarding motherhood. Though various Cuban social structures such as the normalization of non-nuclear families, which will be further discussed in a later section, can provide support for queer women who wish to co-parent a child, it also brings other challenges. Within this context, the paradox of progressive policy versus societal norms becomes much sharper, and highlights the uneven progress in LAC nations.

Browne (2018) interviewed fifteen non-heterosexual women with a variety of experiences, careers, and racial backgrounds in Havana, Cuba, to gather insight into these often-overlooked groups (Browne 2018). Browne’s research aimed to shed light on the disparity between the family rights of heterosexual couples and the rights of queer women desiring to start a family. Cuba is known for progressive stances on women’s rights, but when it comes to “non-heterosexual, transgender, or other queer women, the stance is far more conservative” (Browne 2018, 72). Browne reveals several important findings: the issue of same-sex marriages has been a debate since 2007 yet is still unresolved; the lack of government ruling on reproductive assistance for queer families causes misinformation, discrimination, and unfulfilled needs for families; and lastly, that the options for queer women to have children is within the norms of Cuban society, but there is insufficient legal backing for women who wish to start a family through reproductive assistance or adoption (Browne 2018, 84). In highlighting the specific challenges that queer women in Cuba face when it comes to family life, it is necessary to explore the policy aspects, which include the role of neutral legislation, and the social aspects, which are exemplified in conflict between the policy normalization of non-nuclear families and the persistent stigmatization of LGBTQ+ individuals. 

Policy: Neutral Legislation

Though policy has not been strictly progressive in Cuba, neutral legislation has been a positive development, specifically in the context of queer women’s family rights. The constitution was created to uphold a fair society for all Cubans, yet significant limitations remain within constitutional policies. Despite these flaws, there are ways in which non-specific wording can allow all citizens the rights they are entitled to when popular opinion may work against these rights. Neutral legislation is referred to as legislation that has neither “direct prohibition of assistance for LGBT people” nor “protective and affirmative policies” (Browne 2018, 78). There is more than one lens through which one may interpret “neutral”, and in this case it is seen in a positive light. For example, neutral legislation positively impacts queer parents as it lays the groundwork for affirmative legislation. Though the Cuban government has yet to legalize same-sex marriage, there are still avenues that may aid queer women who wish to raise children. For example, the state protects women’s rights through “protecting the social norms of femininity, maternity, and children” (Saunders 2010, 14). These rights do not discriminate between queer or heterosexual women, as the stereotypes and norms suggest that all women will have or want to have children. The government’s view that women are biologically predetermined to want children is problematic and inconsistent with many feminist perspectives. However, in a system that does not yet support queer marriage, queer couples must find ways to live within the present structures (Hutchison 2020, 190). The absence of policy specifically regarding LGBTQ+ parenting has not hindered the pursuits of queer women to start families, as many heteronormative families are non-nuclear as well (Browne 2018, 82). Legislation regarding childcare is not specified to any group, which allows various combinations of family dynamics. Additionally, mothers have protection for childcare, health care, and schooling, which is not limited to only heterosexual mothers (Browne 2018). Neutral governmental legislation is a step below properly acknowledging various sexualities and family dynamics as valid, but it is a step ahead of pointedly discriminating against those who fall outside of sexuality and gender majorities.

Social Aspects: Stigmatization and the Normalization of Non-Nuclear Families

Though neutral government legislation protects queer women’s rights to have children by broadly categorizing all women, this does not necessarily mean that society accepts queer women as parents. Prevailing stigma surrounding queer people and other social norms make this process more challenging for queer women. In Cuba, there is a conflict between the persistent stigmatization of LGBTQ+ individuals and the normalization of non-nuclear families.

The stigmatization of queer people presents challenges for queer women wishing to have children. Many powerful stories convey the damaging impacts of false stigmas and preconceived notions about sexuality and identity. Additionally, there are many harmful misconceptions surrounding queer people throughout society, specifically regarding children, which makes adoption for queer couples more difficult. Saunders (2010) describes a situation in Cuba in 2004, where a child often visited the home of a popular, openly gay hip hop trio ‘Las Krudas’ (Saunders 2010, 28-29). The child would often play in the house or watch some television, before skipping back off down the street (Saunders 2010, 28-29). These occurrences continued for a year and a half, and the community joked that maybe the little girl was becoming a lesbian. When Saunders went back to visit in 2005, she witnessed the child pause at the house before running along, as other children did (Saunders 2010, 28-29). The lesbian joke had concerned her family, who now scolded her for playing near the house (Saunders 2010, 28-29). Another common, hurtful stereotype is that queer people have pedophilic tendencies. The widespread acceptance of this idea was displayed during a speech made by Vladimir Putin before the 2014 Olympics in Sochi; he noted that “gays were welcome, as long as they leave the children in peace” (Majied 2015, 29). Given the history of Cuba-Russia relations which includes close economic ties and strong diplomatic allyship and collaboration, particularly during the Cold War, Putin’s words have important influence in the context of Cuba because of the interconnectedness of their political systems. Putin’s statement perpetuated the belief that LGBTQ+ people are a danger to children. These harmful misbeliefs then add to the barriers that queer women face in order to have children, from getting access to reproductive assistance to successfully adopting children. Though reproductive assistance is possible in Cuba, it is rarely used for couples that are not considered “high priority”, that is, heterosexual couples faced with fertility challenges. LGBTQ+ couples are not considered to be high priority in this sense (Browne 2018, 80). This low-priority level and lack of access to reproductive assistance may be in part due to stigmas and stereotypes that perpetuate beliefs that a child raised by a same-sex couple is “not a family” (Browne 2018, 82). Though neutral legislation provides some potential for the rights of LGBTQ+ women, stigmatizations and damaging societal norms continue to marginalize these women in Cuba. However, the normalization of non-nuclear families can provide same-sex parents an opportunity to combat these stigmas. 

Normalization of Non-Nuclear Families 

Non-nuclear families are those who do not have both a mother and father sharing roles in a child’s life. They do not conform to the traditional gender roles of normative society.  Given the traditional family values that are prominent in Latin American cultures as a result of colonialism and devout Catholicism in the region, Cuba’s family norms and structures are surprisingly non-nuclear. The conflict between prevailing stigmatization and Cuba’s family norms is perplexing: it showcases a small-scale reproduction of the paradox between lagging cultural norms and progressive policy observed in the LAC region.

Neutral legislation has benefitted queer women in their desire to start families, and Cuban culture normalizes non-nuclear families; yet the legal backing lags, and some forms of discrimination persist.

Contemporary Cuba is widely known for its comfort with flexible structures regarding contributing members of a household. Browne (2018) notes that non-nuclear family structures are common in Cuba, and that children stay with their mother, regardless of whether she is alone, with the father, or with any other partner that is not the child’s biological father (Browne 2018, 81). This could include another female, as Cuban society accepts same-sex couples in non-legal but similar-to-marriage partnerships, provided the child is with their mother (Browne 2018, 76). In this regard, the social norm of mothers caring for their children may help LGBTQ+ females who wish to have a family. In Cuban society, since there is widespread acceptance for unmarried couples with no legal partnership to raise children together, such acceptance allows many same-sex couples live this way as well without as much stigmatization. The norms of Cuban society have stretched to allow same-sex couples to live as though they are married, despite the lack of legal backing (Browne 2018, 76). 

The prevalence of non-nuclear families in Cuba works to the benefit of queer female parents, as they fall under this category by not having a traditional “male” role model. There are various ways in which families may be non-nuclear or may not follow normalized narratives, and this explains why queer marriage would not be a major step. The case for queer parents may be that they both take up each role therefore making the roles less gender-specific, or the opposite-sex vacancies may be filled by respectable family friends or other family. For example, two lesbians raising a boy may wish for him to have influential male role models in his life, therefore making a point to involve the child’s uncle or maternal grandfather in the picture. This may be plausible due to multiple generations of a family living in the same house, or in close proximity to one another (Majied 2015, 31). However, despite these societal norms benefitting queer families, there are those in the community who wish to marry and have access to reproductive assistance. Unfortunately, neither the societal norms nor the legal policies are in place to provide those resources for queer families.

The contrast between the normalization of non-nuclear families within Cuban societal norms and the continuing prevalence of stigmas and discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals presents a conundrum. Neutral legislation has benefitted queer women in their desire to start families, and Cuban culture normalizes non-nuclear families; yet the legal backing lags, and some forms of discrimination persist. This paradox is a major sign of tensions between not just policies and social norms, but also to the extent that social norms can be pushed. The complexities of queer women’s experiences in Cuba are heightened by these paradoxes; the varying and uneven progress in social acceptance and progressive policies negatively impact these already vulnerable communities. The case of Cuba shows a micro-level example of how queer women have been impacted by these conflicting ideas especially when it comes to family life and raising children. It appears that when society approves, policy lags, and when policy affirms, society lags. The acceptance of non-nuclear families suggests it would be a small step to accept same-sex marriages, yet same-sex marriage has not been legalized. On the other hand, prevailing stigmas and stereotypes about LGBTQ+ individuals undermine the benefit of neutral legislation and the support of organizations. There are significant consequences to this uneven progress that are not widely studied. 

The social norms and limited acceptance to LGBTQ+ identities in Cuban society have also impacted queer women’s mental and physical health and access to housing. LGBTQ+ individuals in Cuba experience mental health issues such as depression due to isolation, loneliness, and family disownment, and are at a greater risk for PTSD due to homophobic bullying (Majied 2015). In LAC, sexual minorities are less likely to access the healthcare they need, which is heavily influenced by stigmas and discrimination. Sexual minority women are at greater risk for breast cancer and cardiovascular disease (Malta et al. 2019, 2). In Cuba, as a result of the combined impact of official policy, stigmas, and economic patterns, as well as challenges posed by  a housing shortage, many LGBTQ+ individuals who migrate in search of relationships or to flee family disownment have to fend for themselves, and are left without adequate housing (Hamilton 2009, 618). 

On a broader scale, Cuba, while unique due to its specific revolutionary history, is not the only country in the LAC region in which LGBTQ+ rights deal with paradoxes between social acceptance and progressive policy, producing uneven progress. In countries such as Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil, there has been substantial progress in some areas, like marriage equality, but remain challenges with violence, public perceptions, rising dissent from religious groups, adoption equality, and housing and employment discrimination (Berezowsky 2018; Corrales 2017; Corrales 2020). The pattern of uneven progress in LAC results in social consequences, namely by creating significant barriers for LGBTQ+ individuals that negatively impact the health, employment, income, housing, food security, access to services, and overall well-being of LGBTQ+ individuals. 

Discussion & Conclusion

The case of Cuba and the larger context of LAC countries reveal much about the evolution of LGBTQ+ rights in the region. While there has been remarkable progress, there has also been stagnation and uncertainty (Corrales 2015). There are several categories of insights and policy recommendations that can be drawn from the case of Cuba and the context of LAC. 

First, the uneven progress of LGBTQ+ rights in LAC is a complex issue. As demonstrated by the case of Cuba, movements and institutions have made impressive progress in the legal environment, despite the prevalence of “adverse cultural attitudes and norms” (Corrales 2017, 76). In the academic community, there is disagreement on the explanations for why progressive policy and societal norms are varying and thus lead to uneven progress. For instance, Corrales (2015) argues that the factors that explain the variation include the scale of economic development, the extent of LGBTQ+ movements, and the level of religiosity within the population (Corrales 2015). Alternatively, Wilets (2010) argues that the reasons for divergence include the role of religion, the role of women in relation to religion, the effects of colonialism, the effects of slavery, approaches to domestic incorporation of international human-rights norms, geopolitical perspectives and locations, and the effects of Western hegemony (Willets 2010, 249). The work of these two scholars suggests that there are a variety of aspects to consider when explaining uneven progress. Much more research is needed to understand the delay between legal status and societal tolerance (Corrales 2015). 

Going forward, policy changes in LAC should examine and limit the role of religion in political decision-making processes and introduce anti-corruption measures to prevent ideological preferences due to financial incentives.

Second, uneven progress is damaging for progress in LGBTQ+ human rights movements because it can lead to a reversal of progress and further marginalization, including violence, and policies that revoke rights that have already been gained. The complexity and negative outcomes of the tension between policy and social norms are one reason why this area of research is so important. The case of Cuban women’s experiences with family life highlights how these tensions are damaging and create uncertainty; neutral legislation and the normalization of non-nuclear families work to their benefit, yet there are still significant barriers to their livelihoods such as stigmatization and discrimination. This uneven progress presents significant uncertainty for LGBTQ+ communities and destabilizes the progress that has been made. If societal norms and cultures are not shifting to become more accepting along with policy, then it is possible that progress will be lost, or reversed. For example, Corrales (2020) suggests that with the rise in the political influence of evangelicals, LGBTQ+ rights could be at risk in many countries. Therefore, without societal support and acceptance, LGBTQ+ rights in LAC nations remain unsteady and unpredictable, which poses ongoing risk to livelihoods, quality of life, and the safety of those in the community. 

Third, these issues point to larger questions about the driving force behind policymaking regarding LGBTQ+ rights and the rivalrous power of social norms. This requires a return to Burstein’s (2003) argument that public opinion influences public policy, and that this relationship is strengthened when society cares about the issue, but it can be threatened by interest groups, political parties, and economic elites (Burstein 2003, 29). This paper has explored several questions critical to the whole paradox of uneven progress: Is progressive policy enough? Does policy shift with social norms, or do social norms shift with policy? Despite the widespread progress that has been made in LAC, the relationship between policymaking and changes in social norms remain critical questions that relate to the progress of LGBTQ+ rights and the survival of vulnerable communities.

Going forward, policy changes in LAC should examine and limit the role of religion in political decision-making processes and introduce anti-corruption measures to prevent ideological preferences due to financial incentives. Efforts must also be made globally to advocate for international recognition of LGBTQ+ rights at the United Nations and in other international platforms. Countries that express strong dissent for the recognition of these rights should be subject to the Iinternational Human Rights Llaw and held accountable for human rights violations. 

Another policy priority both domestically and internationally is education and awareness, including incorporating information about diverse sexual orientations and gender identities within school curricula and social campaigns, in order to destigmatize and normalize social acceptance of LGBTQ+ identities. The public awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals should be promoted at all levels of government, along with greater collaboration across civil society, LGBTQ+ rights activists, and affirming religious denominations. Cuba’s CENESEX organization is one such example that can serve as a model for future educational initiatives and awareness building to inform policy.

CENESEX is undoubtedly the biggest advocate for queer rights throughout Cuba. It seeks to achieve marital equality, promote sexual education throughout the nation, encourage acceptance of queer couples as parents, and contribute to the overall normalization of LGBTQ+ identities. Starting as the National Group on Sexual Education (GNTES) in 1977, this government-funded organization was born out of rising feminist movements and the need for sexual education in Cuba, and was later renamed to “CENESEX” in 1989(Kirk 2011). Though their original mission included fourteen “Areas of Work” which included a range of minorities within Cuban society, the necessity for more factual information regarding LGBTQ+ issues later became the organization’s main priority (Kirk 2011, 153). CENESEX’s focus on national education efforts involved the addition of a progressive German textbook to the Cuban medical field, which was chosen by the National Group on Sexual Education (GNES) because it included a chapter on the normality of homosexuality. The topic was controversial at the time and extremely rare to find in contemporary medical books (Kirk 2011). The addition of this textbook helped kick-start a country-wide conversation about tolerating and normalizing homosexuality, and CENESEX took up the mantle of educating the public and fostering dialogue about the spectrum of gender and sexuality in Cuba (Kirk 2011). Though CENESEX worked with the Ministry of Education to broaden sexual education in schools, there is still work to be done to increase education about respect for all sexual orientations (Castro and Pérez 2019). CENESEX’s work thus far has also included advocating for “civil unions for homosexuals” to be part of the Family Code, which establishes a legal framework for family relations in Cuba (Vázquez 2011). Though this may be a small step towards marriage equality, it addresses important challenges for queer families, such as dividing assets, sharing residences, and parenting. While this project has been waitlisted for approval since 2008, it is interesting to note that marriage equality is not viewed as the most critical issue as it has been elsewhere, partially because “many of Cuba’s laws including taxation, inheritance, and adoption are already more egalitarian” (Hutchison 2020, 193). Overall, CENESEX has played a significant role in advancing both policy, education, and social norms in the country, and is a strong example of the importance of policy implementation.

The LGBTQ+ community involves  a diverse range of identities that exist within global society. Over the years, the community has gained considerable progress globally. The regression of LGBTQ+ rights or a lack of continued progress elsewhere manifested by uneven improvements has severe human rights implications. Queer individuals deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, with guaranteed basic human rights. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, this vision is years away. Until scholars and policymakers alike begin to think more critically about these questions and commit to finding solutions to the uneven progress emphasized in this paper, countries will continue to have affirmative policies paired with poor living conditions, health crises, high rates of suicide and murder, hate crimes, homelessness of LGBTQ+ individuals. Without a systematic approach in defending the rights of all individuals in the LGBTQ+ community, rising global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the War in Ukraine, and the increasing impacts of climate change, have put queer individuals in disproportionately vulnerable positions because of persisting discrimination and social, political, and economic barriers. Ultimately, LGBTQ+ rights must be put at the forefront of policy-making in order to generate meaningful and enduring progress.  

*This article was edited by Michelle Zhang (Princeton University), Ryan Pan (Columbia University), and Francis Torres (Princeton University).

About the Author

Melissa Wilk is an MA candidate in the International Affairs program at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, specializing in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. She is currently a Policy Analyst at Environment and Climate Change Canada, and is passionate about climate justice, human rights, and gender equality. Find her on LinkedIn! (Return to Top)


Melissa would like to thank her JPIA editing team for their support and feedback throughout this process. She would also like to thank Dr. Audra Diptee for her consistently inspiring words of encouragement. 


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